Fiction is a big place. Between all the genres and sub-genres filling the libraries and bookstores, there’s also movies and television to consider. And thanks to the Internet, it’s only going to get bigger. Either way, that’s a lot of ground to cover for writers. So what happens when you discover the idea you’ve been working on for months has been done before by someone else?
Step One: Don’t Panic.
While you should make every effort to read widely both in and outside of your genre, it’s very easy for something to slip through the cracks. When and if this happens, remember what you as the writer bring to the table is more important than the idea itself, no matter how original it sounds. Your story might still work, even if it is similar to another work. Take a deep breath. Keep an open mind, and prepare to takes things one step at a time.
Step Two: Don’t Read or Watch It (Yet).
Maybe you were told your young adult novel sounds like a lot like “Labyrinth”. Or you worried your zombie thriller reads a lot like “World War Z” (the book, not the movie). What do you do next? Your first instinct is probably to read or watch the similar work, but this isn’t always the best call. If you aren’t careful, you could end up self-consciously censoring yourself trying to eliminate the similarities – and cutting yourself off at the knees in the process. Instead, try to wait until you are at least done with an outline, or if you’re more of a pantser, the first draft, before you sit down and read or watch the material.
Step Three: Don’t Rewrite
As you have watched the work in question, your next thought might be to strip away all of the identical elements. Instead, give yourself time to dwell on and fully digest the story. Are you really doing the same thing? What are you trying to say? Try to look beneath the surface. Suzanne Collins’ “Hunger Games” books are often compared to Koushun Takami’s “Battle Royale”, but ultimately, the two works have wildly different themes despite their extremely similar premises. In fact, the two works exist in almost completely different genres: “Hunger Games” is a YA dystopian science fiction, while “Battle Royale” is a brutal horror-thriller. There are certainly major similarities, and while people will make their comparisons and draw their own conclusions, but the two works ultimately stand on their own.
Ultimately, only you can decide if you want to continue your work or go back to the drawing board. Maybe what you are trying to say has been said before, in much of the same way, and it’s best to cut your losses. But more often than not, I think it’s best to see where this rabbit hole goes, even if the scenery starts to look familiar. Do you really need another reason not to write? Whether this is your breakout hit or just another learning experience, writing is more about finding your individual voice rather than telling a familiar tale.